A riveting read, How I Became an American Socialist by Garry Leech will be a page-turner for people from all walks of life. Its title is very timely, given there is so much debate today in the US about “socialism” and “capitalism.” Irrespective of the importance one places on the actual content of these two “isms” as expressed in US politics, controversy surrounds differing views on society and values.
Although it is the norm to write about an author as a means of introducing a book in a review, in this case, one cannot do justice to the life and work of Garry Leech in just a few lines or even paragraphs. Reading his book is a must if one wants to know about Leech’s life. It takes the reader from his childhood in the UK to Detroit and to Panama (as a Marine, from which he was very happily discharged). He returns to the US, then goes to El Salvador and (interspersed with return trips to the US) to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia, Canada, Venezuela and Cuba. This book is so accessible that one does not need to know anything about these countries – or Latin America or US–Latin American policy – before being caught up in the lively narrative. Upon completion, however, the reader will have become informed. Readers who already have some knowledge, and whose conscience has been affected, will be profoundly moved and their knowledge deepened.
The writer’s rich experience is not merely geographical. Throughout the pages, he ties together, in a very unique way, his ongoing struggle to define himself and his societal values. The journey stretches from Ayn Rand’s ultra-conservative individualism, which after many years he abandoned, to Gandhi and Che Guevara.
The author is politically frank, transparent and personal. He manages to link the rocky road along his path of political evolution to his personal life. This extends from the death of his father and two marriages, until he found his third wife, Terry Gibbs, the person who dovetailed with his political opinions. There is late fatherhood (age 47) and the couple’s children, to which anyone can relate. One may notice that he dedicates his book, among others, to his grandchildren. How did this seemingly impossible feat to have grandchildren come about, seeing that the book was completed in 2015 while his children were only about 8 to 10 years of age? All will be revealed…
All these themes – first, personal experience through travel; second, the journey through contrasting ideas; and third, personal/family life – constitute what many others go through, but in different ways. Of these motifs, perhaps only traveling extensively in the Third World is not as common for the majority of people. So vivid is the description, however, that the author brings the world to the reader, even though it can never be a replacement for personal experience. His narrative is both anecdotal and profoundly analytical, the former being easily within reach of any layperson. The unique nature of this book is the masterful manner in which all these strands are intertwined, so that it becomes difficult to separate the filaments that comprise the memoir. After all, this was – and is – his real-life experience. The author surely intended to do this, and he succeeded.
Readers may well ask, what does Leech mean by socialism? If one is looking for a simple, one-size-fits-all definition that is fixed in time as well as structurally, one may be disappointed. However, even if readers have already overcome the political/ideological dogmatic barriers framed by mechanical definitions of socialism, then Leech’s approach remains a refreshing contribution to this ongoing debate.
He warns from the outset that “this book does not seek to provide a precise definition of socialism; rather it seeks to explain why someone living in North America might become a socialist in the 21st century.… It’s the story of the experiences in my life that led to my political awakening and the eventual realizing of the fact that I am a socialist.”
In 1975, at the age of 15, Leech moved with his working-class/middle-class family from the UK to a Detroit suburb. They took advantage of the opportunity to transfer from one country to the other offered by his father’s job at the multinational Massey Ferguson.
In Detroit, “there was an invisible barrier that encircled Detroit’s city limit behind which was contained the Black population.… There existed an unofficial, yet very real, apartheid structure.” He was left aghast by the overt racism of his fellow students at school, which was exacerbated given his love for Motown music and which earned him the appellation “n***** lover.” This was Leech’s first insight into a main feature of US society: its profoundly racist nature.
Being a misfit, he tried his luck in the Marines at the age of 19 in order to visit an “exotic country.” A very short but revealing introductory insight into Panama’s 20th-century reality serves as the backdrop that every American should know as part of US control and interference abroad. He relates how the Marines can cross over from the US-controlled Canal Zone to Panama City: “[I]t was possible to travel from the First World to the Third World by simply crossing the street.” Leech, as he does throughout the book, is surprisingly open about his slow evolution toward taking an open anti-US stand integral to a socialist view of society and the world. He points out that while he found the “imperial arrogance” of his fellow Marines abhorrent at a personal level, he also found himself exhibiting this attitude of superiority. Nonetheless, he made sure that he was discharged from the Marines and sent back home. Despite, or perhaps because of, this contradictory experience, his interest in Latin America was kindled, never to be extinguished.
As part of his ongoing search for ideas and experience, he delved into the extreme individualist thinking of Ayn Rand and, in hindsight, offers with acumen connections to Ronald Reagan and the American Dream.
His thirst for travel and interest in Latin America brought him to Central America, mainly by hitchhiking and using local buses. This adventure was funded by working in the meat department of a suburban Detroit supermarket. Toward the end of his short junket in Latin America, when finally leaving El Salvador to return to the US, his values were confronted by another episode. The Salvadoran border guards, as part of the US-backed military apparatus, arbitrarily thought that he was supporting the anti-US Marxist guerrillas. He was imprisoned in horrible conditions so vividly described that readers cannot help but feel they are there. His life and thinking took another jump forward. After witnessing three soldiers rape a female Guatemalan prisoner, he wrote, “I felt sick to my stomach.”
Was this experience the turning point toward becoming an American socialist? No. He relates that, rather than responding in solidarity with the more than 70,000 assassinated Salvadorans who were less fortunate than he, he conceded that the individualist thinking he instilled in himself was too formidable a barrier.
The reader may justifiably ask, if this shocking acquaintance with Salvadoran reality did not divert him from individualism, what would? What was the next experience that opened his mind and touched his heart? In the 1980s, from the age of about 20 to 29, there were two things that weighed on his growing political awareness.
One consisted of two films on El Salvador, one by Oliver Stone and one by another director. This brings the reader to a crash course, in a few pages, on the criminal results of US interference in that country. Five years after El Salvador, “[C]racks were now appearing in the structures of my belief system….”
The second situation emerged from a family event. It was the passing away of his father, who was laid off from Massey Ferguson as a result of the company’s insatiable greed for profits. The reflections on this personal calamity offer an insight into how “I viewed corporate capitalism.” This evolution was further deepened by his own experience as a butcher, as he tried to organize his fellow workers, despite their rampant racist, sexist and homophobic remarks, for better salaries compared with nearby unionized workers in the same industry.
He then returned to Latin America, “that amazing part of the world.” En route to Ecuador, his ultimate destination inspired by the desire to explore the Amazon rain forest, he traveled through Panama. Readers will acquire further knowledge into how the US uses the so-called “war on drugs” for its own imperial ambitions; moreover, he makes a link to another violent US-led counterrevolution in Nicaragua. While his rapid in-transit sojourn through Colombia may whet the readers’ appetite to discover the flagrant human rights violations in that country, this desire is more than compensated later on in the book through his extensive work in Colombia as a journalist.
In Ecuador, “‘Those sons of bitches have ruined us. They came here and ruined our land, our water and our community. If there were an American here right now, I’d cut his head off,’” a machete-wielding Indigenous person told the fortunate Brit in reference to US oil companies. In Ecuador, far from being a tourist, he canoed along a river in Indigenous areas and lived among the people there. Leech plunges the reader right into the life and recent history of the Indigenous people. They had been drastically affected by the foreign oil companies’ insatiable push for oil, and then their rapid retreat, once this resource was exhausted. This chain of events completely disrupted their centuries-old way of life. Leech later linked this hatred of what he calls “corporate capitalism” with his emotionally charged and politically interpreted experience of his father, who passed away after devoting his life to the inappreciative company for which he worked.
While his trip to Ecuador provided him with insights into the reality there, so did the calmness of nature in the rain forest. Wandering off and finding himself alone with nature, he had an opportunity to reflect. One can notice that his Ayn Rand-influenced mindset was starting to crumble: “[W]e humans, at our core, are social beings.”
During the 1990s, in his thirties, Leech spent about a decade residing in New York City (NYC). This period was interspersed with three years in Las Vegas working as a black jack dealer and as a security guard to finance his Political Science education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His time at the security company and its related health care system paints a graphic, yet relatable, portrait of the extreme inherent shortcomings of the health care system in the US.
During that decade, as it was for so many people, the combination of formal education at university and real-life observations brought him to finally usher in “a profound shift away from Ayn Rand and the myth of individualism towards a more compassionate view of people and society.” However, note that this trajectory stretched from the 1980s to about 1993, a long period. Nevertheless, this is not a weakness, but a strength, for it shows the extent to which he values serious refection on the opposing outlooks of individualism and collectivism.
From his formal education springs a series of interesting comments. For example, on Chile, Leech writes, “Washington’s imperialist arrogance was exemplified by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who said at the time, ‘I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.’” The goal of the 1973 US-organized, violent coup d’état in Chile, Leech continues, “was to replace the socialist policies implemented by the [elected] Allende government with free market capitalism.”
One can profit from his accessible analysis, which resulted from extensive reading in the 1990s about US and Latin America politics combined with his rich personal experience, as accumulated up to that point in life. He opens the pages of his publication with the concepts of “liberalism” and “neo-liberalism” and its outward manifestation in Latin America. He looks at the Reagan years, the coup d’état in Chile and free trade agreements, such as North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Canada and Mexico, with its devastating effects on the former. If one wants to know what liberals and liberalism are really all about, above and beyond the fray of political labels as expressed in American elections, here it is, at one’s disposal.
The devastating effects of NAFTA are highlighted with the example at hand. In Detroit, the Big Three auto companies shifted production to Mexico to save on labor costs, devastating that city. The arrival of Bill Clinton, he further explains, did not change anything as far as promotion of neo-liberalism domestically and toward other countries.
It was only in 1998, at the age of 38, that he found his calling as a journalist by producing a monthly bulletin at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, entitled Out of Left Field. The goal was to combat the prevalent ideas at the time. This is a reminder to all that it is never too late for people to initiate a stand against injustice and disinformation, both of which go hand in hand.
During that period, he consciously provoked the flourishing of his own thinking by reading Gandhi, the pacifist. Side by side with this philosophical affiliation, he also read Che Guevara, the revolutionary who made his name by participating in the armed insurrection led by Fidel Castro in the late 1950s to overthrow the US-backed Batista dictatorship. Wait a second! Is this not a contradiction? Perhaps for many, but not for Leech. Did he force himself to make a choice? Surprisingly not. In fact, he concedes that “to this day  I remain conflicted about this issue.” However, his dialectical approach to this dilemma leads him to proclaim that “violence must only be used as a last resort.”
With his heart and mind swirling within this predicament, he continued his journalistic foray by working for the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) in NYC. In the context of today’s elections in the US, when the Clinton brand is being waved, it is very enlightening to learn about US President Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia. He made Colombia the third-largest recipient of US military aid, after Israel and Egypt. Clinton inspired Leech to oppose this policy by dedicating himself to investigative journalism. The plan was not to carry out this new calling from the comfort of a NYC office or apartment, but in Colombia itself.
His detailed account, now at everyone’s disposal, is based on his presence right in the Colombian war zone. There, the US-backed Colombian military and its paramilitary wing operated against the people and the guerillas. This journalistic involvement is perhaps the highlight of the book. In the midst of the life-threatening dangers inherent in his assignment, it can be concluded that Leech’s professional activity was heroic. However, nowhere does he say or even insinuate this. On the contrary, what emerges from these pages – whose content is captivating – is not his story as the writer, but rather the plight of the Colombian people in the face of one of the world’s most violent and sustained violators of human rights, the Colombian government. It seems to have been a humbling experience for him, just as it will be for any sensitive reader.
Fast-forward to September 11, 2001, NYC, where Leech was residing. President George W. Bush: “‘They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other…’” “But,” Leech writes after having recounted how he and his wife worked tirelessly at Ground Zero in the rubble to try and save lives, “based on my experience in Latin America over the years I felt that Bush was misleading the American people… It wasn’t the freedoms enjoyed by Americans that US critics hated; it was the foreign policies of the US government and operations of US corporations that were the most significant factor to anti-American attitudes.” Leech then fleshes out this bold but necessary dose of realism into the blind misconceptions about 9/11. He does so by recapitulating through accounts, almost like sound bites for the reader now familiar with the subject, about El Salvador, Ecuador (remember the machete-wielding Indigenous person) and Colombia.
His next trip to Colombia provides the opportunity to engross oneself even further in that country’s situation. The outrageous murders and assassinations were carried out by the US-funded, trained and backed military, whose role, as he outstandingly narrates, lies in protecting the US oil companies. One has to read it to believe it. Even the most experienced and knowledgeable people have to have their memories refreshed. For the relatively uninitiated, it is imperative. His description consumes the reader. It is graphic, but not the type of violent pornography that the US mainstream media are prone to project when it favors the US. When it does not favor the US, the US reporters turn a blind eye. For example, the correspondent from The New York Times in Colombia admittedly just wrote what the US ruling circles wanted to hear. Thus, Leech’s characterization of one NYT reporter, based on what she said and not what Leech assumed, is significant: “a stenographer for the US government.” This reality of mainstream US media is something that people should seriously reflect upon in considering the role it plays in shaping political views.
On a lighter note, but no less political, Leech finally met the love of his life, Terry Gibbs, at the age of 43. Of course, where else would this transpire but at the 2003 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil? She was representing NACLA, where she worked at the time. While it is a personal account, once again what served as the foundation for the bonding of the new couple were common political views based on uncanny similar life experiences. This all resulted in a common destiny.
Did his journey to other parts end there? No. Of all places, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where Terry Gibbs secured employment at a university, became the backdrop of yet a further deepening of his political views. By pure accident, the plight of the coal mine workers in Nova Scotia was linked to capitalist globalization and Colombia, from which coal was imported to replace coal from the last coal mine in that area of Canada. Perhaps it was not an accident, given that he has a strong interest in globalization and its effects on the workers in both the North and the South. It may otherwise have gone virtually unnoticed by a stranger to the area. Thus, he got involved with others in the area by revealing the true nature of Colombia and the effects on the coal mine workers in that Latin American country. He shares with readers his further observations on the plight of Colombian workers as part of capitalist globalization.
This evolution also widened his horizons on concepts such as democracy and capitalism, and on the disempowerment and empowerment of working people. These are all subjects of increasing interest in the US at this time. He by then harshly, but very justly, describes the system founded on “imperialist structures” as “a class-based structural genocide, with the principal victims being the poor in the global South.” However, for the author, these are not merely labels. It rather emerges as a natural result of both worldliness and reading. Fortunately for the reader, every step of the way is shared.
On family and personal matters, his destiny (even in Cape Breton) also seemed to be tied to Latin America; he discovered at that time that he was a grandfather, arising from an affair he had as a Marine in Panama. This country once again erupted into his life. It is most interesting to learn how he and Terry, with their own sons, integrated this startling discovery into their own life with all the compassion for which they stood. The family trip to Panama was another step in his odyssey.
Given his extensive opposition to capitalism, one wonders if he would have considered real-life alternatives. Yes, he did. However, these were to be found not only in books. Once again, real life provided the fertile ground on which he continued to build his concepts.
This brought him and Terry first to Venezuela. Once again, the end result is an objective look, easily within reach, into this experience since the election of Hugo Chávez in December 1998. In a few pages, one gets a real perception of the transformations that have been going on there. However, this is dosed with realism based on his account of US-funded attempts to draw people at the base away from the Chavista Bolivarian Revolution toward a neo-liberal alternative. Americans should know about this. This US tactic was, in fact, accomplished to a certain extent in the December 6, 2015 legislative elections to the National Assembly. However, he perhaps saw this coming: it “remains to be seen” whether the Bolivarian Revolution can succeed in overcoming its opponents, as well as its own shortcoming and mistakes.
The second alternative that he tackles is the Cuban revolution. In fact, he devotes a full chapter to it. It is one of the most extensive in the author’s methodical breakdown of the text into 13 chapters, which makes the book very reader-friendly.
At a time when Americans are increasingly visiting Cuba, as it has now become a trend, here is a very convenient view from “the inside.” He lived in a typical Havana neighborhood and, based there, he shared the day-to-day life of Cubans. This was combined with a study of local economic/social/political/cultural conditions, including the role of urban agriculture and organic farming. As a result, he paints a very lively portrait of this country, until recently a “forbidden fruit” for Americans.
Even the recent changes going on in Cuba, which are relatively complex, are at the readers’ fingertips. No stone is left unturned, as he combines anecdotes with study and analysis. He seeks to bring out the best of Cuban socialism as expressed through a very wide sphere of activities and daily life. He recounts the experience of his young son, who accompanied him on one trip and fell ill. This serves to starkly contrast the health system in Cuba as being superior even to the one in Canada.
At the same time, he is not apologetic about Cuba. For example, he points to the dangers of consumerism being fostered among the youth as a danger to the future of Cuba’s socialism. His overall conclusion is that his experience on the island, made possible by several visits, shows that socialism is far superior to capitalism in meeting the needs of the poor in the global South.
However, while the book does not end with a promotion of the Cuban model as some kind of nirvana, it serves to distill from this experience and other observations what Leech sees as the main features of socialism. It is relatively extensive, but easily accessible. He refers to Gandhi and Che Guevara as well as Fidel Castro. Leech highlights, among others characteristics that the reader can discover, concepts such as grass-roots participatory democracy, which combines collective well-being, solidarity and individual enlightenment.
Nevertheless, true to his initial resistance to simple definitions, he writes toward the end of the book that “my journey to socialism has been a long one and will most likely entail many more twists and turns in the future.” One gets the impression, and perhaps rightly so, that his journey is not over, and probably never will be, as the ideal is not easily attained. His relevant and perspicacious quote from Che in his conclusion, as can be read, points in this direction.
Today, more than ever, the book is a must-read for Americans, especially the younger generation.